Preparing for Life after Administration: Stepping Away
There are many reasons why a tenured faculty member takes on an administrative role—a desire to help, the ability to influence the campus as a whole, a fear of who will take on the job if they don’t—but at some point, it is time to leave. Academic leaders either move on to another leadership position on their campus or at another institution or return to the faculty. My purpose here is not to rehearse the reasons why a leader may leave their position, though I do like Kent Syverud’s concise phrasing: “They get fired, hired, or tired.” Instead I want to focus on the extremely thoughtful and useful discussion of how to navigate a return to the faculty—whether by choice or not—in Lisa Jasinski’s Stepping Away: Returning to the Faculty after Senior Academic Leadership (Rutgers University Press, 2023).
Jasinski’s text is based on her in-depth interviews with more than 50 senior leaders (presidents, provosts, deans, and other senior leaders) from a wide range of colleges and universities (large, small, public, private, research-intensive, teaching-focused) about their experiences moving from administrative to faculty roles. Along the way, she also discusses some of the challenges that these moves create for those around them—their department chairs and fellow faculty as well as their spouses and families.
The argument that emerges from Jasinski’s study is that while a great deal of variation occurs in the lived experience of senior academic leaders who leave administration to a focus on teaching, research, and service, there is an overall process of “stepping away” that involves three broad phases composed of a total of seven somewhat overlapping microprocesses that will occur for all leaders. She uses the term “stepping away” to avoid characterizing the return to faculty as a demotion (e.g., stepping down). While the change in position usually involves a decrease in salary, most of the leaders Jasinski interviewed perceived the move more as a “stepping aside” or a “stepping back” so that someone else could move into a leadership role. Describing the move as a “return to the faculty” was also problematic for many of Jasinski’s subjects, who identified as faculty throughout their administrative time, in many cases continuing to teach or conduct research while serving in their administrative roles. Jasinski addresses the complexities of the metaphors that are used to describe the process, settling on the broadly neutral “stepping away,” although in some cases the leader may not be so much stepping away from one role as stepping toward another.
Jasinski embeds her study within the context of the work of developmental and organizational psychologists on how individuals experience transitions as well as how those transitions affect the individuals around them and the systems in which they are embedded. Most significant to her theoretical framework is the work of Herminia Ibarra, which posits that “workplace transitions follow a three-part cycle: separation, liminality, and reintegration” (Jasinski 20). The “stepping away” model similarly identifies three broad stages each leader undergoes, which she terms “first steps,” “the messy middle,” and “life after administration.” This process—especially in its early stages—is full of personal confusion, self-assessment, and reconsideration of values and goals. It leads the former administrator to a reinvention of themselves and a new understanding of how they can continue to add value to their institution, their academic department, and their personal community.
I do not want to suggest that Jasinski’s work rests in theoretical abstraction. The real strength of Stepping Away is how it allows the voices of the study’s participants to emerge throughout the text. These voices emphasize the range of experiences lived by individual leaders moving out of administrative roles. Consider, for example, Jasinski’s discussion of the confusion inherent in the way colleagues respond to one former dean after he has returned to his faculty role:
I think we’re all kind of figuring out how to relate to each other. . . . I think the overlay of being dean, that doesn’t go away. A lot of faculty still refer to me as “dean” when they speak to me—or about me to somebody else. They’ll catch themselves and say, “Wait a minute, he’s no longer the dean.” What that means is “he’s no longer broken” or “he’s no longer carrying the authority,” “he’s safe.” They will catch themselves, and they will kind of laugh about that. All of that is part of the overlay of the relationship with me. (62)
The honesty of this former dean’s statement encapsulates the conflicting dimensions of the return to the faculty much more clearly than scholarly rhetoric could.
Elsewhere, discussing the ambiguity and confusion of the initial period after the end of the administrative term, Jasinski describes another former dean’s reaction to her first days after leaving her position:
Former dean Nancy told me that she spent the first few days of her sabbatical sitting on her porch reading a mystery novel. Upon finishing the book, she said to herself, half jokingly, “Okay, that was fun. Now it’s time to get back to work.” (76)
Nearly every page contains the insights of the leaders themselves, whose willingness to be open and transparent about their transitions makes Stepping Away an important resource for academic leaders.
The openness with which Jasinski’s subjects describe their experiences and struggles matters to me as someone in the midst of stepping away. Her model—at least its early stages (where I have more personal experience)—rings true. The emphasis on the need to imagine multiple futures and the confusion liminality causes (not just for the exiting administrator but for other members of the campus community and their family) mirrors my current experience. In addition to letting me hear the voices of others who have navigated their way through the labyrinth, Jasinski provides her readers with extractable “nuggets” (her term) of “collected wisdom” on such topics as sharing the news, knowing when it is time to step aside, deciding whether to conduct an administrative job search instead of returning to the faculty, helping others on campus see you in your new role, and so on. One particularly relevant piece of wisdom: “When others learn of your plans to leave, invariably, many of their first thoughts (and fears) will be about how your departure impacts them. Keeping this top of mind will help guide your actions and support your colleagues” (32).
Jasinski’s practical study reflects an important facet of institutions of higher education that is neatly summarized by Jeffrey L. Buller, who likens the career path of a faculty member who serves as an administrator and then returns to the faculty to a bell curve:
One lesson we can learn from the bell-shaped career curve is that, much more than we sometimes realize, the “faculty/administrator continuum” profoundly affects what academic leaders do. There’s a continual ebb and flow between the administration and the faculty. The unionized environment at many universities, coupled with how most institutions design their organizational charts, creates the appearance of a clear line between management and labor, administration, and faculty. But that picture distorts the reality of higher education.
The reality of higher education—and of the lives of those of us who serve as faculty and administrators—is complex and messy. It requires us to negotiate among our various roles, but it doesn’t often provide us with clear guideposts. I applaud Lisa Jasinski for creating a resource that takes us from the earliest stages of considering our careers after administration to the later stages of successfully and happily engaging in the faculty roles of teaching, research, and service.
Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the dean of University College and a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.